Should we fear the German far right?

In Germany, for several years, far-right thinking has become normalized and intellectualized. Rational debate is devalued, democracy is called into question, and Nazi ideologies are spreading. A worrying state of affairs.

Since 2019, we have sometimes heard that the decline of the AfD (the German far right) is a certainty, that this party will last a long time and will ultimately have been only an epiphenomenon, whose radicalization would be solely due to the “migration crisis” of 2015. But is it so certain?

Concentric circles

The question arises repeatedly at every event involving far-right actors in Germany: to what extent are these isolated acts or links in a powerful and organized system? Wilhelm Heitmeyer had already written on the subject, developing a model of a “continuum” in the form of concentric circles that he takes up here.

This diagram allows us to understand how an escalation is possible between several levels within German society: the outermost circle is formed by the sometimes unconscious racist clichés and representations of certain members of the population, and the tightest circle is made up of radical actors of the extreme right who take action by killing (the level of aggressiveness and destructive potential therefore increases according to the circles). Between the two, according to Wilhelm Heitmeyer, there is a whole series of concentric circles whose influences and alliances allowing the aggressors to take action are to be shown.

This is the great merit of this work: it analyses dynamic processes, through a cross-sectional view of German society. It underlines that the range of means of action, of social phenomena to be linked directly or indirectly to the extreme right is very broad. And it shows how extreme right thinking, in recent years, has become normalised, intellectualised and has spread to large sections of the population, who are no longer isolated, so that the boundaries between the extreme right and the conservative democratic right are becoming porous, whereas they were not so just a few years ago.

Crises and authoritarianism

More generally, the authors note that confidence in democracy as a system for organizing society is gradually disappearing in Germany. What is new is that, for the past ten years, the “exhaustion of utopian energies” (diagnosed by Habermas in the mid-1980s) has opened up spaces for “regressive political energies.” They are characterized by very variable discursive elements. This frequently involves the narration of a supposed “fight for freedoms” by the “victims of the system.”

There is a kind of right-wing Gramscism here (even if the authors do not use this term): it comes down to dislocating the dominant discourse and using elements of this discourse as a political weapon, often by accusing others of being dogmatic. We saw this during the demonstrations organized in the summer against health measures, for example on 1er August in Berlin, the audience was very diverse, with anti-vaxxers mixing with representatives of the far right, who were clearly identified as such.

The authors go through everything that can be subsumed under the term “Rechte”, which means the extreme right, that is to say all the tendencies that are based on this ideology of inequality, with a feeling of nationalist or völkisch superiority (this old term, widely used under the Weimar Republic, insisting on the homogeneity and “purity” of the German people, gave rise to the racial theories of the Nazi Party), as well as a reference to social Darwinism, interpreted as asserting the right of the strongest, which was obviously not Darwin’s theory. The second element is the acceptance of violence, as a normal and legitimate instrument. Rational discourses are devalued, democratic forms of regulating social and political conflicts are rejected, and there is often a tendency towards militarism.

The far right of 2021 is modernizing the National Socialist legacy. A group that openly claims to be Nazism will have little resonance in German society. On the other hand, talking about “ethnopluralism” changes everything. We find the same racist ideology, but with a new “cultural” guise. Far-right actors often resort to polysemic semantic devices, which they use in a polemical way by exploiting their capacity for migration across different discursive fields and ideological positions, such as the notions of “popular community,” “decline,” the notion of authority, or the essentialization of “peoples.” Thus, their discourse carries, sometimes without it being obvious, what must be called Nazi ideologemes – even if the authors of the book do not formulate them in these terms.

What is exciting and seems innovative is their analysis of the role of certain intellectuals, publicists and journalists, who provide legitimacy to the extreme right, while not being part of it, as “resonance receivers” (Resonanz-Empfänger) of these extreme right discourses in universities, the media or businesses. The book is full of concrete examples.

Gangrene in the army

The authors’ judgment of the state is extremely negative. They speak of its “partial blindness,” its inability to learn from history. But there is something even more serious: the situation within the army. The president of the MAD (Federal Office for Military Screening Servicesthe military counterintelligence office), Christof Gramm, claims that there is a “new dimension” to the problem of right-wing extremist influence within the military. He appeared before the Bundestag in June 2020 and spoke of the “wall of silence” within the group KSK (the elite unit known as “special forces”). The German Minister of Defense presented this summer a catalogue of sixty measures to reform these special forces, in response to the proximity of some of its members to the extreme right movement. Recently, the alerts have multiplied.

In May 2020, a large cache of weapons and ammunition, also containing several dozen kilos of explosives, was discovered in the garden of a sergeant major without it being possible to establish what these weapons were intended for. On June 12, 2020, a soldier from the group KSK had written directly to the Minister of Defence to say that far-right tendencies were tolerated, deliberately stifled and that members of the KSK were instructed not to report any incidents.

Most worrying is the role of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Federal Office for Legal Protection), i.e. the domestic intelligence services. The authors show that anti-democratic ideas have penetrated even this institution, which is nevertheless responsible for protecting German democracy. In 2011, the “shredder affair” revealed incredible facts: following the discovery of the bomb attacks prepared by the NSU (an underground neo-Nazi group), a department head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had destroyed explosive documents identifying informants for a far-right party, the Thuringian Homeland Protection (THS, Thuringian Home Protection).

Six years later, his successor Hans-Georg Maaßen took early retirement in November 2018, because he too was suspected of collusion with the extreme right. The new president of these internal security services, Thomas Haldenwang, will, it is to be hoped, finally seriously address the danger of the extreme right.

Some reservations

It is regrettable that the issue of gender relations is very little addressed in the book. But it is a real question when studying the extreme right. The AfD was founded in February 2013 in a small community hall in the town of Oberursel in Hesse by 18 people: 18 men. Today, only 13% of the members of this party (which has around 35,000) are women. Another “record”: the AfD parliamentary group in Bundestag has 10 women for 82 men. Within the Federal Councilthe party’s board of directors, only 2 women out of 14 people in total.

The same goes for voters: 16.3 percent of men and 9.2 percent of women voted for the AfD in the last Bundestag elections in 2017, meaning that two-thirds of the party’s voters are men. This is true in both the East and the West.

It is also regrettable that some statistics are a little dated. Despite these reservations, the book is extremely rich. It allows us to become aware, with many little-known concrete examples, that democracy can quickly lose its footing. The book also gives room to emotion, in particular by copying over five pages the long list of people killed by the extreme right, because the statistics do not immediately reflect the fact that human lives have been destroyed.

Finally, the book contains twenty-two pages of very complete bibliography on the subject. As you will have understood: this book, written with fury, but without renouncing scientific rigor, is both very enlightening and very distressing.